First off, it’s not Gaelic. The name of the language is Irish.
Irish is a Gaelic — or Goidelic — language, most closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Manx, within the family of modern Celtic languages that also includes the Brythonic tongues of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The antecedents of all these languages were spoken in Europe back to prehistoric times.
The Irish spoke Irish almost exclusively until the 18th century. Almost. It got complicated, especially around Dublin, the gateway to all sorts of influences. The Vikings started it by settling Dublin and littering the place with Norse words for common things, mainly to do with fishing and commerce. The Church was already praying and writing all over everything in Latin. Later, Normans invaded with French, and the English soon brought English.
Irish, French and English all got on pretty well through the 17th century, says Brian Ó Conchubhair, associate professor of Irish Language and Literature at Notre Dame. Bilingualism was beginning to take hold, with English finding its place as the island’s second language, certainly among Anglo-Irish families and the closer one got to Dublin. But mostly the Irish spoke and wrote and sang in Irish.
The 1700s saw a push to promote English. Not just the language, but English dress and other cultural norms. And the English were getting a bit stiff about the Irish language, the games, the dancing and other customs. They kept trying to outlaw it. “We know it’s not successful,” Ó Conchubhair says, “because Irish is outlawed again and again. And again.”
Another century went by, and Irish seminarians were training in English. Before long English became the language of Ireland’s education system. Going to market required English. Suing your landlord or defending yourself against criminal charges required English, lest ye be thought of as shifty. In short, British authorities didn’t need language laws once English became the cultural passport to a better social and economic life.
So Ireland in 1840 was bilingual. The famine that started five years later changed everything. “It wipes out the lowest class in Ireland, who were the monoglots,” Ó Conchubhair explains. They either left or starved to death. Few stayed behind and lived to perpetuate Irish culture.
“What we’ve never sufficiently been able to explain is why people wanted to distance themselves from the Irish language as quickly as possible,” he says. In Ireland, in America and everywhere else the Irish went they “abandoned” their language with conspicuous speed.
That brings us to 1900, with Irish speakers down to their last million worldwide and dwindling fast, even as a new spirit of cultural revival swept across Europe. Irish cultural leaders began fighting all things English, which, in the Darwinian language of the day they saw as “a disease, a virus, threatening to wipe out the Irish race.” They worked to formalize, teach and practice the Irish language along with Irish dance and sports like hurling, a project officially picked up after the formation of the Irish Free State under British dominion. “But social engineering is rarely successful,” Ó Conchubhair notes. While sport and dance took off, the Irish government found itself about as powerless to Gaelicize Ireland linguistically as those 18th century laws had been in Anglicizing it.
Things began to change in the 1990s with TG4, the smartly produced Irish language radio and television network, and the public use of Irish among cultural heroes such as three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michelle Smith. Some bristle over the expensive move in 2007 to make Irish Ireland’s first official language, but the appearance of Irish names in fashion magazines and TV broadcasts is common. Suddenly, Irish isn’t the language of poverty any more.